David Crane’s sequel to Pitfall, which he also worked on, had the worst release timing. It arrived in 1984 in the midst of the “Video Game Crash”. But like the Sega Saturn in its last days, Pitfall II joined a glut of titles of which a few would go on to be remembered among the best games to come out for the Atari 2600.
Pitfall II was an innovative title in a number of ways that pushed the Atari 2600’s hardware beyond what many thought it was capable of making the first Pitfall look like a demo.
The basics were back — jumping, running, climbing ladders, collecting gold bars — but the level design multiplied the underground arena by tens of screens leaving the surface far behind. Where the first game only had the surface with its crocodiles, pits, logs, and other dangers along with a one-level underground tunnel, Pitfall II delivered a multi-level monster. Hours were spent just trying to find my way around this place without having to worry about what my score looked like.
Even the manual was full of greatness. The art direction for it had also reflected that used in the ad above in making it a piece of the game’s fiction as the journal of Pitfall Harry. Much like how the manual for The Collective’s Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb had been meticulously illustrated with stamps, cut out articles, and fiction to make it more than just a manual, Pitfall II’s documentation gripped my imagination from the start in the same way.
So Pitfall Harry heads underground to jump over scorpions, poisonous frogs, and holes in a quest to find his niece, Rhonda, Quicklaw the cat, and the Raj Diamond — not necessarily in that order. He also can’t die. That is, unlike the first game, there’s no limit to the lives you have or how much time you spend in the game.
Death is punished only by subtracting your points as you are zapped back to the nearest checkpoint, marked by a red cross and explained as Incan healing magic, making this an early example of that kind of save system for a console game as well as in treating death as less of a punishment than as an obstacle to attaining a perfect score.
Harry can even swim! Something that more than a few games since then, like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, haven’t implemented despite having a lot of the wet stuff around. Then again, he IS an adventurer so he should know that kind of adventurey stuff over that of a gangster, but still.
In addition to the massively expanded venue and checkpoints, Harry can also travel across vast chasms using floaty balloons that he can find bobbing around underground. He can fall without getting killed, though his score might be hit instead, and even guide himself down thanks to “underground breezes”. Players that hit 99,000 points and take a snapshot of their triumph are even eligible for a “Cliffhangers” patch that they can mail in for.
The game even featured a full score whose tempo changed with your actions. If you die, for example, or haven’t found any treasure in awhile, it slows down and almost becomes as morose as the player for being unable to progress. But pack Pitfall Harry’s pockets with loot and keep pushing forward, and the theme music ramps up.
To get all of these tricks working from the multi-channel soundtrack to the labyrinthine halls, David Crane boosted what was done on the cartridge thanks to the Display Processor Chip that he designed. It allowed Pitfall II to pull off all of the neat tricks it could do and then some making it the largest game on the console.
It also wouldn’t be the first time a developer tried a workaround solution like this to get the hardware to do things it normally couldn’t. Years later in 1991, Color Dreams, who were working on a Hellraiser game, also had the idea to do something similar to make their game pull off tricks that the NES wasn’t able to do. Unfortunately, unlike Pitfall II, that game never came to light.
In retrospect, David Crane was ahead of his time with the elements he brought to Pitfall II — detailed documentation to fire up the player’s imagination, a vast action adventure game involving swimming, jumping, climbing, and a pacifistic approach to survive the creatures underground, continuing from checkpoints, and making death not so much of a punishment but part of the gameplay for adventurers keen on attaining a perfect run which the manual tempts them with. It’s a milestone to remember not only for the Atari 2600, but for gaming in general.
It would even be ported to the Atari PC, Colecovision, Apple II, the CoCo, PCjr, MSX, and the 5200. The port for the C64 even had a secret level built into it that was initially intended to be a continuation of the game after attaining all of the treasures. You can even download a “remake” which ports the original game to modern PCs. It was initially built as a competitor in 2003’s Retro Remakes Competition, but you can freely download it here if you want to relive this classic adventure (the link in the gallery above doesn’t work).
Unfortunately for Pitfall Harry, this was the last and best of his adventures. The sequels that came afterwards didn’t have David Crane’s participation and fell far short of players’ expectations. The adventure crown would pass on to others, like Lara Croft, Nathan Drake, and ol’ Indiana Jones when he could find himself in a good game. Yet each of their games among countless others shares something in common with Pitfall II making it a treasured part of their history that has little danger of being lost and forgotten.